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New trial ordered for death-row inmate in Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A man who has spent 28 years on death row and was once two hours away from execution will get a new trial after the Florida Supreme Court said Thursday that a retest of evidence makes it highly unlikely he would have been convicted of a 1982 Daytona Beach murder.

Roy Swafford was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing gas station attendant Brenda Rucker, who was slain Feb. 14, 1982. He was sentenced to death in 1985. Five years later, guards were preparing to shave his head and a leg to ready him for the electric chair when a court halted the execution.

The Supreme Court said Swafford was convicted largely on testimony that acid phosphatase, which is found in semen, was found on the victim, though no sperm was found in the sample. When the evidence was retested in 2005, neither acid phosphatase nor semen was found on the swabs. Without evidence of a rape, it’s unlikely Swafford would have been found guilty on any of the charges, the court said.

“The State’s entire case was built around a theory that Swafford’s motive in abducting and murdering the victim was to engage in a sexual battery against her,” the ruling read. “If there was no sexual battery, then the State’s entire theory of the case has been eliminated because the State’s circumstantial case was premised on Swafford’s motive having been the sexual battery. No witness, DNA, or fingerprints link Swafford to the victim or the murder weapon.”

Swafford was in Daytona Beach for the Daytona 500. He left a strip bar at 6 a.m., where he had displayed a gun, and the gas station where Rucker worked was along the route back to his campground. Rucker was kidnapped between 6:17 and 6:20 a.m. and Swafford arrived at the campground at about 6:30, according to witnesses. The Supreme Court expressed doubt that he would have had time to commit the crime.

Rucker’s body was found about six miles from the gas station. She was fully clothed and had been shot nine times. It appeared the murder happened elsewhere and the body was driven there. Yet police found no blood or hair evidence in the car Swafford had borrowed from a friend, and his friends testified they didn’t see blood on Swafford or the car.

“Swafford had a very limited time in which to kidnap the victim, take her to a different location and sexually batter her, redress her, kill her, and then move the body to the location where the body was found,” the court wrote.

Evidence that another person might have committed the murder was not used during Swafford’s trial. A man named Michael Walsh and his car matched the description of a person and car seen with the victim just before she was kidnapped. Walsh dropped two friends off at a Laundromat a half block from the gas station just before Rucker was kidnapped. He didn’t return until more than four hours later and was sweaty, nervous and hyper, and later was anxious to get rid of a gun that was the same type used in the murder, according to witnesses.

Walsh was arrested in Arkansas a month later and police found the “be on the lookout” notice police issued after Rucker’s murder. They notified Volusia County authorizes that Walsh “strongly resembled” the drawing of the suspect on the notice.

The Supreme Court said Swafford would be able to use the details about Walsh in a new trial to be able to show the possibility of another suspect.